The True Taste

August 17, 2013 § Leave a comment


Crappy photo, incredible wine!

My latest column in the Portland Press Herald sprung from a New Yorker article on Bill Buford and Daniel Boulud, where they construct this impossible old-school dish, the chartreuse, and you think it can’t be worth it — or any good — until the usually taciturn Boulud exclaims that the dish is “le vrai goût de la France”.

That’s what I think of the wines of André Brunel. His “ordinary” Côtes du Rhône, a scant $13 retail, is the “true taste of France”. It has that inimitable French quality that makes you feel as you’re drinking it that you never want to drink anything else.

It’s bottled unfiltered, from old-vines Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah fermented in concrete tanks. The wine is a conversation among every element of the plant cycle: soil, roots, branches, leaves, fruit. It’s the whole picture, with tannins integrated, both toothsome and silken.

Brunel’s Chàteauneuf-du-Pâpe takes that conversation deeper, deeper, deeper. Yes, it costs a whole helluva lot more. It should. But the CdR is where you start. And I love the white, too, the Domaine de la Becassonne. It’s not flabby and stupid, like most southern Rhône whites. It tastes more like an Alsatian Pinot Blanc to me, and that’s a very good thing.

The article is worth reading, in my opinion, because in an interview with me Brunel talked fascinatingly about what is happening in this historic region because of global climate change. How do you maintain the “traditions of the ancients”, in Brunel’s words, in a world whose very chemistry is changing? Who’s got a more compelling question than that?

Wine quiver. Five non-ordinary, non-boring wines for everyday drinking.

September 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

Writers love to wax, and wine writers are some of the worst. But it’s mostly onanism. Much as I want my writing to be about the poetry, readers want it to be about the wine: Tell me what to buy and drink, dammit! That’s probably why last week’s wine column was one I heard a lot about, from customers and readers. No fancy stuff, just five wines under $15 that you wouldn’t ordinarily pick up:  labels are weird, varietals aren’t named, the wines aren’t just “fresh, dry white” or “luscious, fruit-forward red”.

Picpoul, an uncategorizably nutty/floral southwest-France white from Grenache and Macabeu, an unoaked Italian Chardonnay that tastes like a Vouvray, a great Piemonte red blend, and a Ventoux table red oozing Provençe. All under $15!

Ride ’em Cowboy: a Rhône Ranger winemaker Euros can love

April 20, 2012 § 2 Comments

Paso Robles is known for producing big, bruising wines. And there’s not really a way around the climate and terrain that produce ’em. Still, there are ways to be sane, and to infuse these echt-American wines with a Europhilic sense of place and balance. Vines on the Marycrest‘s Victor Abascal is one of the good guys, and here’s where you can read why.

Languedoc wine: NOT the Yellow Tail of France

January 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

We all want to find cool stuff no one’s ever heard of, but how do you find the cool stuff that’s hiding in plain view? France’s Languedoc helps answer that question. Source of so much mass-produced crapola, it also contains thrilling wine appellations that are home to small-scale, dedicated winemakers who are artisanal exceptions to the Languedoc-is-bulk-wine rule. My Portland Press Herald column this week takes the plunge.

Wine = reality = truth ≠ language

July 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

My latest column in the Portland Press Herald acknowledges the ultimate futility of (wine) writing, while simultaneously rescuing it from ignominy all the same. Despite, with qualification, what Eric Asimov says, there actually are good reasons to try to adhere language to wine, even though it often fails so miserably and sounds ridiculous. Just because a wine has “poopy elements” doesn’t mean it tastes like poop. And it sure doesn’t mean you won’t love the wine.

Red wines for barbecues? Depends what you’re cooking

June 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

My latest column gets at that crowd-pleasing topic, “wines for the grill”. Not any Zinfandel will do, unless you’re cooking burgers or wet-sauced ribs. For the rest of us, grilling has become so much more varied than that, so you need wines capable of the variety. Lighter, better balance of minerality and fruit, etc. This column goes at it from a European side of things (Côtes-du-Rhône, Rioja, Costières-de-Nimes), next time I’ll stay domestic.

The Classic Southern Rhône Wines of Perrin & Fils

March 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Perrin wines are rather unassuming at first glance. Not flashy. But they’re often brilliant, sometimes mind-rocking, always interesting. You owe it to the classic, gracious, stately side of yourself to drink these wines.

From Portland Press Herald, March 16, 2011

We tend to seek out the new in whatever realms we drift in, partly because it’s exciting and partly for ego upgrade. Be it pop stars, gadgets, politics or wine-and-food, we restless postmoderns like our hunts. But excitement for excitement’s sake is simply distraction, and as for the delusion that the self is ennobled by striving, Google Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. Today I’ll raise a flag for intimacy with the not-so-new.

Where else can one’s mind go when considering (and tasting) the wines of the Perrin family? The Perrins have been making wine in the France’s Southern Rhône since 1909, so well and so consistently that the familiar labels may fail to set your heart aflutter as it peruses your local shop or wine list. Comes a time, though, when your heart matures, and gains the ability to flutter at ever subtler stimuli. Perrin & Fils wines are for such subtle hearts, and for drinkers who are good with elegance, patience, harmony and class. That they bear little blast of trendiness might make them seem less relevant to you, but in fact it makes them more so.

The Southern Rhône is profoundly rural France, rustically Provençal in character though not in a touristy way (very windy, spotty wi-fi). In the Northern Rhône, the red wines come from Syrah alone; in the south there are 13 possible varietals blended according to demands of terroir and winemaker preference, and the best wines reflect that freewheeling provenance. But only disciplined winemakers are going to be able to wrest the graceful soul from such hodgepodgey origins.

Perrin wines express that soul, while staying true to the olive-oil/garlic/wild-herbs personality of the region. Most are brisk, spicy, and rocky, reminiscent of open fires and tough old clothes wind-blown ragged and caked in dust. Perrin holds some of the oldest vineyards in France, which have hosted vines brought from the Phoenicians and Greeks. It’s the real deal.

And it comes across in a stunning variety of wines, starting with the Vielle Ferme line, through the Perrin Reserves and Crus, all the way up to Châteauneuf-du-Pape standard-bearer Château de Beaucastel. The range itself is part of what’s so interesting, because it invites you into a relationship with the family and a certain outlook.  (The winemakers still have Perrin for a surname, into the fifth generation now coming up).

Maybe that’s what we’re truly seeking when we hunt for “the new”: a relationship with something real, somewhere real, real people. We find this relationship so rarely that we look and look again, restlessly; with the Perrins you can rest.

You’ve probably seen the Vielle Ferme 2009 ($8, or $13 for the 1.5L size) the last time you stopped at a moderately well-stocked convenience store, which is part of what’s remarkable about it. The Perrins don’t own the Luberon properties that produce these wines, but manage the vineyards. The white surprised me most, because I’d remembered it as excessively fruity. The 2009 was somewhat floral but very clean (it sees no oak), flinty and green-appley, above all alive. The red (same price) is almost maddeningly easy. Something naughty made me want to find flaws but there aren’t any; it’s a perfectly balanced blend of half Grenache and the rest Syrah, Carignan and Cinsault, just perfect for don’t-think-about-it occasions.

Perrin Réserve Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge 2009 ($12) is the best intro to red Côtes-du-Rhône I can think of, pure and straightforward. It hits all the right notes — licorice, spearmint, twigs, moderate spice — with none of the overbearing twang that sometimes plagues CdR. The Côtes-du-Rhône Villages 2009 ($14) is a huge step up, due to different vineyards that permit more Syrah. My notes from a few weeks ago have a lot of exclamation marks, but I just remember how prime the fruit is, like cherries or a red plum in July: that succulent, that oozing, that vital, that smooth.

For me the best values, though, are two of the Perrin Crus. The crus are the myriad vineyard-specific wines that express the deepest soul of the Southern Rhône, and Pierre Perrin is a master at finding and developing the sites. The Cairanne 2007 ($23) is extraordinary, from a site near Gigondas: packed with spice, soft and voluptuously feminine, figgy and deep. 2007 Rhône has already been called a vintage for the ages, and while the Cairanne is singing right now, buy a few bottles because in just 2-4 years it’ll be singing from even deeper down. The Vinsobres 2006 ($20), from the northernmost Southern Rhône village, is more upright, with liqueur-y body, mocha and teriyaki, robust.

The Réserve Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc 2009 ($10) is quite round while remaining fresh and almost evanescent; I liked it fine, though it was only when I tasted Perrin whites in the >$30 range (Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc Roussanne Vielles Vignes 2007, $165, call my name!) that I really found the same strength of character the reds offer up so effortlessly.

I haven’t even touched on the Beaucastel wines, frankly because they cost a good deal of money and are made for cellaring which most of you don’t do. If you’re wealthier and more patient than I assume, then puh-leeze: buy the Coudoulet de Beaucastel Côtes-du-Rhône 2008 ($31), a savory, opulent, gamey wine draped in wet wool, smoke, jus and currant. It’s almost as intricate and Johnny-Cash-like as the Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 ($96, a bottle of squid ink and truffles you should drink when your newborn finishes med school), but more open to friendship.

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